By Anna Challet
New American Media
SAN FRANCISCO — For the refugees who left Vietnam on boats and in helicopters, the journey home has been long and strange, if home has been found at all. It has been almost forty years since the fall of Saigon, when Andrew Lam and his family left Vietnam on a cargo plane—a passage that would take them to Camp Pendleton and then to San Francisco. In the time since that passage, Lam has become an award-winning journalist and written three books.
The thirteen stories in Lam’s most recent collection, Birds of Paradise Lost, are populated by refugees of the Vietnam War who came to the Bay Area, as well as their children and friends—but each story is a world unto itself. Lam’s characters are haunted by what they have lost, transfixed by embers that still cloud the air with smoke. What Lam explores is the question of whether they can conquer the ghosts, or at least learn to live with them peacefully.
I met Lam about a year ago, when the collection was in its final stages of editing, and was immediately struck by his disarming sense of humor, with its mischievousness and sharp edge. His stories are informed by the country that he lost, but his lightheartedness buoys words that weigh heavy on the heart. With the knowledge that everything familiar can disappear all at once, he smiles with ghosts and laughs in darkness.
And if humor and loss are bound up in each other in Lam’s work, no story in the collection illustrates this better than “Grandma’s Tales.”
In “Grandma’s Tales,” the parents of two teenage children go to Vegas for a vacation, leaving the boy and girl with their grandmother—who promptly dies. In what seems like a natural move at the time, the kids decide to “ice” her:
She was small enough that she fit right above the TV dinner trays and the frozen yogurt bars we were going to have for dessert. We wrapped all of grandma’s five-foot-three, ninety-eight-pound lithe body in Saran wrap and kept her there and hoped Mama and Papa would get the Mama-Papa-come-home-quick-Grandma’s-dead letter that we sent to Circus Circus, where they were staying, celebrating their thirty-third wedding anniversary.
Now, Grandma has lived a hard life — she has endured three wars and the deaths of four children and twelve grandchildren. To survive all this only to be shoved into the freezer by her American grandkids may be the ultimate injustice. But then, in what seems like a natural progression, she rises from the dead, leaving a trail of water throughout the house. Our narrator, the male child, shows less anxiety than one would expect over this turn of events. Grandma refuses to wait for the parents to come home and give her a proper funeral, and she leaves to travel the world, planning to make a stop at her old home in Hanoi.
Lam never mentions anything about the resurrection having been a dream. We are both sure and unsure. Following Grandma’s disappearance, the family is in mourning:
While the incense smoke drifted all over the house and the crying and wailing droned like cicadas humming on the tamarind tree in the summer back in Vietnam, Grandma wasn’t around. Grandma had done away with the normal plot for tragedy, and life after her was not going to be so simple anymore.
They heard cicadas buzz when Grandma died — the cicada itself a bug of resurrection.
Grandma won’t stay in the freezer and wait for her own funeral, and Lam won’t be held captive by his own experience of Vietnam. He too does away with the “normal plot for tragedy.” He is not imprisoned by his own past or by the label of being an immigrant writer. His memories may provide the fuel, but each story is a very different flame—some burst with unexpected colors, while others are quiet and send up a trail of black smoke into the sky.
In the latter vein is the titular “Birds of Paradise Lost,” a story of self-immolation at the heart of the collection. The narrator’s best friend sets himself on fire in Washington, D.C., to protest Vietnam’s communist regime. The narrator and his adult son get into an argument over what the act meant, his son believing that his father’s friend must not have been “of sound mind” to do such a thing. After they exchange words in the car on the way to Thanksgiving dinner, the narrator, an old man, gets out of the car and walks alone down the twilight streets:
My son’s question plagued me. Where should love for country end and where should common sense begin?
Could I pour gasoline on myself and light a match? Should I? Why should I?
… A car approached. Its bright headlights woke me from my torments. I squinted and thought for a second that it was my son coming back for me, but it passed by without slowing. When it was gone, I felt so disappointed that I nearly wept.
What has it all meant — the leaving, the suffering, the sacrifice? Has it meant anything at all? The self-immolation of the narrator’s friend provides no answers, and the narrator is left wanting only to be with his son. It’s the tension of simultaneous belonging and alienation; the narrator chooses to walk away from his son, and yet longs for his son to come find him. He wants to stand with his friend who has seemingly given his life for his country, but he questions what the act even meant. Home is far away but his son is somewhere nearby. He must keep walking; he must learn to let go.
When I interviewed Lam about Birds of Paradise Lost for a piece in New America Media (the ethnic news organization where he is an editor and I am a reporter), he told me that he writes “with the confidence that these stories, written from the heart, will belong, in time, to America.” In this vein, Lam writes in English, which is his third language (after Vietnamese and French).
Lam’s readiness to “give” these stories to America stands in contrast to much of our public discourse on immigrants. In Lam’s stories, hearts may wander from one place to another when the only option is to survive, but the characters are fully engaged in building on top of the ashes. The most heartbreaking of these stories often involve the separation of parents and children; when Lam and his family left Vietnam in 1975, when he was eleven, they had to do so without his father, a general in the South Vietnamese army. Their family was reunited later that year. There is a depth of understanding in Lam’s stories about parents and children having to leave each other (both literally and figuratively), and about the joy and grace of their reuniting and moving on.
In many ways, isn’t this life as anyone might understand it? We leave, we come home, and we find home is not as it once was. We fear, we hold tightly to the people we love, we learn how to live a different way.
I am hopeful that these stories of America will soon “belong to” America as well.
Anna Challet is a reporter for New America Media in San Francisco.